**I received an ARC from the publisher through Netgalley. These are my honest opinions, and in no way was I compensated for this review.**
Book: Legendborn (Legendborn #1) by Tracy Deonn
Release Date: September 15, 2020
My Rating: 4 stars
Rep: ownvoices Black protagonist, bisexual main character, lesbian Taiwanese-American side character, gay side character, nonbinary side character, bisexual side character, wlw side character
CW: death of a parent (mother), racism, mentions of child abuse, on-page rape (not explicit/graphic)
Summary: Filled with mystery and an intriguingly rich magic system, Tracy Deonn’s YA contemporary fantasy Legendborn offers the dark allure of City of Bones with a modern-day twist on a classic legend and a lot of Southern Black Girl Magic.
After her mother dies in an accident, sixteen-year-old Bree Matthews wants nothing to do with her family memories or childhood home. A residential program for bright high schoolers at UNC–Chapel Hill seems like the perfect escape—until Bree witnesses a magical attack her very first night on campus.
A flying demon feeding on human energies.
A secret society of so called “Legendborn” students that hunt the creatures down.
And a mysterious teenage mage who calls himself a “Merlin” and who attempts—and fails—to wipe Bree’s memory of everything she saw.
The mage’s failure unlocks Bree’s own unique magic and a buried memory with a hidden connection: the night her mother died, another Merlin was at the hospital. Now that Bree knows there’s more to her mother’s death than what’s on the police report, she’ll do whatever it takes to find out the truth, even if that means infiltrating the Legendborn as one of their initiates.
She recruits Nick, a self-exiled Legendborn with his own grudge against the group, and their reluctant partnership pulls them deeper into the society’s secrets—and closer to each other. But when the Legendborn reveal themselves as the descendants of King Arthur’s knights and explain that a magical war is coming, Bree has to decide how far she’ll go for the truth and whether she should use her magic to take the society down—or join the fight.
The first time I saw magic was the night my mother died.
As soon as I read that summary, I knew I had to read this book. It’s been a while since I’ve read an urban fantasy at this scale, and I really enjoyed it! An Arthurian retelling with Southern Black Girl Magic, Legendborn provided a fresh take on age-old myths and YA tropes.
Bree is grieving her mother’s death as she arrives as a student at UNC-Chapel Hill for a program called Early College. When she goes to a party, she runs across demons and a mage named Sel who’s fighting them. Sel takes away her memories, but she somehow fights it and more importantly, she realizes that she’s seen this magic before. Bree recruits Nick, another student at Early College who’s supposed to mentor her and is somehow involved with this world, to take her with him into the secret society called the Order. But there are more secrets here than Bree first thought, and she’s soon pulled into a world of Arthurian bloodlines that seeks to keep her out.
When I said that this book takes on typical YA tropes, I somewhat meant that this book reminded me of a 2012 YA fantasy? However, I don’t mean that in a bad way! Legendborn has some of these tropes, yes, but it makes them its own and perhaps more importantly, it has an ownvoices Black protagonist. People are so quick to judge when I say “chosen one” or “love triangle” (which are the tropes here), but this book doesn’t fall into cliche YA fantasy because it doesn’t have a white protagonist. It inherently subverts these tropes by having a Black protagonist. People of color deserve to see these kind of stories with themselves as the main characters, especially ones written by PoC themselves! Also, I’m just generally not opposed to these tropes as long as they’re well done, and they are in this book. So yeah, I just wanted to preface my review by saying that this reminded me of a 2012 YA fantasy, but I loved that and I personally think we should have more of that today (with ownvoices PoC as the main characters of course).
I really liked the characters. Bree was stubborn and willing to do whatever it takes to uncover the mystery of her mother’s death, even if that means joining a mysterious secret society that clearly spells trouble. I really love her character development honestly; grief is a heavy thing, and she tries to push it away but eventually she has to realize that her grief and her anger are a part of her now. Nick is so sweet and caring. He helps Bree in any way that he can. Meanwhile, Sel is the requisite snarky character; I didn’t like him much at first, but naturally, he (not so unexpectedly) grew on me.
Bree also has such a great support system. Her dad makes her go to therapy because he thinks she’s not coping well after her mother’s death (and she’s not); her therapist, Patricia, helps her answer questions she didn’t even know she had. Bree’s best friend Alice is always there for her, even when she doesn’t want her to be. Despite there being many people in the Order who want to see Bree fail, there are also a lot of characters who want to see her succeed.
The romance was also good. Bree and Nick were a little instalovey, but that’s not always a bad thing. I also really liked how caring Nick was. There is a love triangle, and again, I’m not necessarily opposed to this trope. I wasn’t quite expecting it but yeah I ended up liking the other love interest as well, so we’ll see what happens next.
Oh also the representation in this story is so great! Bree is ownvoices Black; Sel is bisexual; and Alice is a Taiwanese-American lesbian. There’s also bisexual, gay, and wlw side characters, as well as nonbinary side character who uses they/them pronouns.
The worldbuilding is intense and incredibly detailed. This is a King Arthur retelling, so there are squires and pages and mages called Merlins. Legendborn means someone whose family follows the bloodline of one of the Knights of the Round Table, and every Legendborn family has an heir. Deonn has clearly put thought into the hierarchy of this world, and it’s utterly fascinating. She also ties in “Southern Black Girl Magic” as the summary says; by this, I mean a magic called root that has ties to Southern Black culture. Bree must grapple with both worlds and magic systems because they intertwine more than she realizes.
Everything has two histories. Especially in the South.
Since the Legendborn families follow the bloodlines of King Arthur’s knights, they are all white. Being in the South, many of them are racist as well although they may not seem it at first. Many of the members of the Order obviously think Bree will fail and that she doesn’t belong there, which is indicative of society today. Bree deals with many microaggressions, but she proves them all wrong. Also, since this book takes place in North Carolina, the Order has links to slavery in its past as many old societies in the South do. There’s a line in the author’s note that I really loved about Arthur being the seat of Western mythology and how she wanted to show how we can retell stories in different ways.
To me, Arthur represents the seat of the Western legend canon. Arthuriana is an opportunity for us to reorient ourselves to the story we preserve . . . and rediscover who gets to be legendary.
This review got really long, I’m sorry; this doesn’t even cover everything. The book itself was very long but it definitely pays off in the last 5-10%! That ending was a Lot and I cannot wait for the sequel.
Legendborn was a refreshing take on both a “classic” story and various YA tropes. It takes the King Arthur legend and makes it its own. The characters are great, and I loved the representation in this book. Legendborn is a legend in and of itself, one that should definitely make its way into the hands of anyone interested in retellings or urban fantasy.
About the Author: Tracy Deonn is a writer and 2nd gen fangirl. She grew up in North Carolina, where she devoured fantasy books and Southern food in equal measure. After earning two degrees from UNC-CH, Tracy worked in live theater, video games, and K-12 education. When she’s not writing, Tracy panels at SFF conventions, reads fanfic, arranges doggy playdates, and keeps an eye out for ginger-flavored everything.